Book Is Rallying Resistance to the Antivaccine Crusade
By DONALD G. McNEIL Jr.
Published: January 12, 2009
A new book defending vaccines, written by a doctor infuriated at the claim that they cause autism, is galvanizing a backlash against the antivaccine movement in the United States.
Ryan Collerd for The New York Times
Paul A. Offit, pediatrician.
But there will be no book tour for the doctor, Paul A. Offit, author of “Autism’s False Prophets.” He has had too many death threats.
“I’ll speak at a conference, say, to nurses,” he said. “But I wouldn’t go into a bookstore and sign books. It can get nasty. There are parents who really believe that vaccines hurt their children, and to them, I’m incredibly evil. They hate me.”
Dr. Offit, a pediatrician, is a mild, funny and somewhat rumpled 57-year-old. The chief of infectious diseases at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, he is also the co-inventor of a vaccine against rotavirus, a diarrheal disease that kills 600,000 children a year in poor countries.
“When Jonas Salk invented polio vaccine, he was a hero — and I’m a terrorist?” he jokes, referring to a placard denouncing him at a recent demonstration by antivaccine activists outside the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.
In recent years, the debate over vaccines and autism, which began in fear and confusion, has hardened into anger. As Dr. Offit’s book details, numerous studies of thimerosal, measles virus and other alleged autism triggers in vaccines have been conducted, and hundreds of children with diagnoses of autism have undergone what he considers sham treatments and been “cured.” Both sides insist that the medical evidence backs them.
As a result, “a few years ago this ceased to be a civil scientific discourse and became about crucifying individuals,” said Dr. Gregory A. Poland, chief of vaccine research at the Mayo Clinic, who says he has had threats against his children. “Paul is a lightning rod, a figure who goes charging into the fray.”
Those backing Dr. Offit say he was forced into the role. Opponents of vaccines have held rallies, appeared on talk shows like “Oprah” and “Imus in the Morning,” been the heroes of made-for-TV movies and found a celebrity spokeswoman in Jenny McCarthy, the actress and former Playboy model who has an autistic son. Meanwhile, the response from public health officials has been muted and couched in dull scientific jargon.
“If the surgeon general or the secretary of health or the head of the C.D.C. would come out and make a really strong statement on this, I think the whole thing would go away,” said Dr. Peter J. Hotez, president of the Sabin Vaccine Institute, who has a severely autistic daughter whose disease, he argues, is genetic.
Asked why public health officials have been reticent, the acting surgeon general, Dr. Steven K. Galson, issued a statement saying that “childhood immunizations are one of the greatest achievements of all time” and that “scientific evidence clearly shows that vaccines do not contribute to autism.” He has spoken on issues like obesity, tobacco, air travel and exercise, but his office said he had not been questioned by journalists about vaccines and autism.
Dr. Offit’s book, published in September by Columbia University Press, has been widely endorsed by pediatricians, autism researchers, vaccine companies and medical journalists who say it sums up, in layman’s language, the scientific evidence for vaccines and forcefully argues that vulnerable parents are being manipulated by doctors promoting false cures and lawyers filing class-action suits.
“Opponents of vaccines have taken the autism story hostage,” Dr. Offit said. “They don’t speak for all parents of autistic kids, they use fringe scientists and celebrities, they’ve set up cottage industries of false hope, and they’re hurting kids. Parents pay out of their pockets for dangerous treatments, they take out second mortgages to buy hyperbaric oxygen chambers. It’s just unconscionable.”
His opponents dismiss him as “Dr. Proffit” because he received millions in royalties for his RotaTeq vaccine. One group he criticizes harshly in the book is Generation Rescue, which advocates treating autistic children with wheat- and dairy-free diets, vitamins and chelation to remove mercury from the body. Ms. McCarthy, her companion, the actor Jim Carrey, and Deirdre Imus, wife of the radio host, are all on its board.
J. B. Handley, who founded Generation Rescue in 2005, rejected Dr. Offit’s attacks, saying: “We have hundreds of fully recovered children. I’m very frustrated that Dr. Offit, who’s never treated an autistic child, is spending his time trying to refute the reality of biomedical recovery.”
He scoffed at the idea that Dr. Offit had had numerous death threats but condemned threats generally, saying he had received some himself. “No one should ever do that to another human being,” he said.
Dr. Offit now has his own celebrity ally, the actress Amanda Peet, who was introduced to him through a brother-in-law, a doctor at his Philadelphia hospital.
“Where I live in L.A.,” she said in a telephone interview, “there’s this child-rearing trend — only feed your kids organic food, detoxify your house. And there’s a lot of anticorporate fervor, anti-pharmaceutical company fervor.”
When she was pregnant, she said, “I’d have lunch with my friends who were moms, and they’d say they wouldn’t vaccinate, or would space out their vaccinations
and hadn’t I heard?”
After quizzing several doctors in her family and Dr. Offit, she eventually agreed to become a spokeswoman for Every Child by Two, a vaccine-advocacy group founded by Rosalynn Carter, the former first lady.
In an interview with Cookie, a magazine for parents, Ms. Peet called antivaccine parents “parasites” because they relied on other children’s immunity to protect their own. She later apologized for the word but emphasized that parents should get their medical advice from doctors, “not from me or any other celebrity.”
Dr. Nancy J. Minshew, a neurologist at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center and a leading autism expert, said she had begun telling any parent asking about vaccines to read the Offit book. A brain-imaging specialist who gets no money from vaccine companies, she said she had never met or spoken with Dr. Offit.
Autism, she said, is one of many diseases, like dyslexia, Elephant Man’s disease, tuberous sclerosis and schizophrenia, that are caused by genetic flaws but show no symptoms for years.
She blamed journalists for “creating a Conspiracy
where there was none.” By acting as if there were two legitimate sides to the autism debate, she said, “the media has fed on this — it’s great for ratings.”
Many doctors now argue that reporters should treat the antivaccine lobby with the same indifference they do Holocaust deniers, AIDS deniers and those claiming to have proof that NASA faked the Moon landings.
Dr. Offit’s book traces the history of autism theories, starting with the child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim’s blaming “refrigerator mothers.” It describes early false cures, including “facilitated communication,” in which assistants helped mute children type their thoughts; head-squeezing by osteopaths; cod liver oil; diets; and a 1998 fad for secretin, a pig hormone. It sums up 16 epidemiological studies showing no link between autism and either measles or thimerosal, a vaccine preservative.
To the newer argument that vaccines overwhelm babies’ immune systems, Dr. Offit notes that current shots against 14 diseases contain 153 proteins, while babies cope with thousands of new foreign proteins daily in food, dirt and animal hair, and that the smallpox vaccine that nearly every American over age 30 got as a child contained 200 proteins.
Arthur Allen, the author of “Vaccine: The Controversial Story of Medicine’s Greatest Lifesaver” (W. W. Norton, 2007), has publicly debated other journalists who argue that vaccines cause autism. Six years ago, he wrote a seminal article in The New York Times Magazine titled “The Not-So-Crackpot Autism Theory.” He later changed his mind and now “feels bad” about the article, he said, “because it helped get these people into the field who did a lot of damage.”
Dr. Offit’s book “needed to be written,” he said. But he is skeptical that it will end the struggle.
“There are still people who believe fluoride is dangerous, who think jet contrails cause cancer,” he said. “I’m waiting for the debate to get beyond that, but you’re not going to convert some people.”
Next week: In the Personal Health column, Jane E. Brody will write about efforts, so far fruitless, to find a cure for autism.
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: January 16, 2009
An article on Tuesday about a controversy over the book “Autism’s False Prophets,” by the infectious-disease physician Dr. Paul Offit, misstated the global death toll of rotavirus, a diarrheal disease for which Dr. Offit helped invent a vaccine. Rotavirus kills almost 600,000 children in poor countries each year, according to the World Health Organization — not 60,000.